Kevin Boyle: 40 Years Later, the Urban Crisis Still Smolders

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Ohio State University and is the author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age."]

On a sultry Sunday 40 years ago this week, the Detroit police raided an after-hours bar at the corner of 12th and Clairmount streets, in a poor black section of the city's west side. A crowd gathered to watch, the way it always does when it's too hot to be indoors and there's nothing else to do. In their rush to finish the operation, the cops got a bit rough with some of their prisoners, pushing and shoving and wielding their batons. A few onlookers started tossing insults at the officers, followed by bottles and stones. On the edge of the crowd, a teenager launched a trash can through the window of Hardy's drugstore, while someone else set a shoe shop ablaze. Within an hour, the melee had escalated into a riot -- a rebellion, some said later -- that raced like wildfire across the central city.

June 24, 2007, was another sultry Sunday in Detroit. Maybe it was the heat making tempers ragged. Maybe it was the perverse pride of an entrepreneur defending the business he built. Whatever the reason, when Dier Smith ripped off a local drug dealer, the man responded with stunning force. As Smith raced down Calvert Street, the dealer drew out his AK-47 and opened fire. Smith escaped, but the hail of bullets hit three bystanders: a young woman, her female friend and the friend's son. The adults survived. The little boy, 16-month-old Keith Wallace, didn't.

It's a short walk from Calvert to Clairmount, an easy stroll along seven blocks of boarded-up stores and weed-choked lots where buildings used to be. Between those two streets, though, lies a catastrophic failure of national will. As terrifying as the rioting was -- and a city wreathed in flames is one of the most terrifying sights imaginable -- it also created an extraordinary moment of opportunity. For the first time in the nation's history, Americans were forced to face the racial divisions and economic inequalities that ran through their cities. Four decades later, the divisions remain. The tragedy is that the nation's determination to confront them has long since slipped away....

comments powered by Disqus